Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rama Yade (Guest Post: Eloi Laurent)

The following is a guest post by Eloi Laurent, a French economist. Eloi has proposed a series of biographies of "visible minorities" in power in various walks of French life. This first contribution focuses on Rama Yade.

Rama Yade, 30, the new junior minister for foreign affairs and human rights, certainly has one of the most interesting biographies of the Sarkozy-Fillon government. Born in Dakar, Ramatoulaye Yade-Zimet (her full name) came to France in 1987 with her parents, Senegalese intellectuals. Her father was the personal secretary of the socialist president, poet, writer and “immortelLéopold Sédar Senghor and her mother was a professor of history. How did a talented young black woman from a left background become the face of diversity in a right-wing government? The story of Rama Yade might be read as the story of the missed rendez-vous between the French left and visible minorities.

Following her father (sent on a mission), Yade experienced in her youth two very different French “banlieues” in the segregated city of Colombes (in the Hauts-de-Seine département). She first grew up as a child of an affluent diplomat in a pleasant residential district, but when her parents separated, she moved with her then single mother into one of the few “cités” of the Hauts-de-Seine, the richest French département after Paris, home to the richest city in France, Neuilly-sur-Seine, the political nursery of Nicolas Sarkozy. She says she first met the President on TV in 1993, watching the hostage crisis triggered by “Human Bomb” unfold and Sarkozy become France’s mayor.

In her book published last January, Noirs de France, Yade recalls her first experience with racism, when one time in class the teacher asked children what they associated with the black color: “night”, “evil”, “dirt”,…She also reveals a moment of truth somewhat embarrassing for Sciences-Po, which rightly prides itself on being more diversity-focused than other French higher educational institutions: her German literature professor at the school on rue Saint-Guillaume wouldn’t believe she had written an excellent dissertation because, said the professor, she “wasn’t fit to understand the German soul.”

Nevertheless, she eventually found her way into Sciences-Po’s elite networking center and connected with Sarkozy via one of her lecturers, Emmanuelle Mignon, who came first in the René Char promotion at ENA and is now the President chief of staff (Sarkozy met Mignon through Renaud Denoix de St Marc, the vice-President of the Conseil d’Etat, having asked him for the “most beautiful brain” of his administration).

After Sciences-Po, Yade sought professional security and found it the Sénat, becoming an “administratrice” of the old house, after triumphing in a typical French “concours”. She probably didn’t realize it then, but it was the usual old school move for anyone wanting to get involved in French politics: a very well-paid public job affording gentle access to days of glory and a safe refuge in case of a reversal of fortune.

Her story becomes more complicated: as she drifts politically to the right in the Sénat, Rama Yade (whose family is of Muslim faith like 95% of Senegalese) privately moves to the left, as she marries a socialist militant and diplomat, Joseph Zimet, who happens to be the son of the famous Yiddish singer Ben Zimet. According to her, it was he who pushed her into politics. The influence also flowed in the other direction: her husband recently found a spot in the cabinet of Jean-Marie Bockel , the new Minister of francophonie and cooperation, who, after years of sermons in the desert, preferred to be part of the UMP majority rather than a perpetual member of the PS minority.

Velocity is the term that comes to mind when one considers Yade’s rise to power from her late meeting with Sarkozy in 2005: in March 2006, she was made responsible for francophonie within the UMP, and, much more important, in the following year she served as the candidate’s opening act during the presidential campaign.

The rest is not yet history, but whatever becomes of Yade (already under political fire), her odyssey is emblematic of how the PS disappointed and angered the minority generation that came of age waiting for the glorious “integration” promises of the 1980’s to be kept (see what the ex-president of SOS-Racisme Malek Boutih has to say about it). In her inflammatory and memorable speech on the day of Sarkozy’s candidacy inauguration, Yade accused the left of having given minorities “mercy instead of respect”. The “grand soir did not come from where it was expected,” she said ironically.

Patrick Lozès, the founder of the CRAN, the federation of French Blacks created in November 2005 in the aftermath of the urban riots (strongly recommended: writings and interviews by two other CRAN leaders, Pap Ndiaye and Louis-Georges Tin), made the same point on his blog in a post aptly titled “left-wing diversity, right-wing diversity”: “Facts are cold : it is Nicolas Sarkozy who has been the initiator of this profound change”.

But is Rama Yade the definitive answer to what has been labelled the “black question”? (with Michèle Lamont, I covered some of its early developments last year). Is Rama Yade the smiling face of the post-Le Pen France?

There is still a long way to reach the mountaintop:

- First, the number of black and minorities candidates and office holders is shockingly low in France, with the right actually trailing the left. A study by IFOP shows that there were only 20 PS and 7 UMP “diversity candidates” in the legislative elections. On average, the PS diversity candidates scored 6 points below the national average of other PS candidates. The CRAN has shown in a recent study that legislative black candidates in metropolitan France (i.e. excluding the DOM-TOM where virtually all candidates are black) accounted for only 0,5% of all candidates (with a population estimated five times higher). What is more, black candidates have been more numerous in left parties (11) than on the right (8). Finally, as regards the result of the legislative elections, George Pau-Langevin, after a bitter internal campaign in the Parisian PS, became the first black woman to be elected at the Assembléé Nationale from a metropolitan district.

- Second, discrimination in France must be addressed much more resolutely, beyond symbols. The promotion of role models in public spaces is indeed crucial to curb discriminations, but it is not enough. After years of denial, France finally decided in 2004 (under a right-wing government) to create an institution to effectively fight discrimination (the HALDE). After a slow start, things are moving in the right direction: the latest HALDE report shows 4058 complains have been filled in 2006, up from 1410 in 2005, with already 1700 filed from January to March 2007 (origin is not the only criterion of discrimination, but represents 35% of complains, far ahead any other motive).

Yet, the remaining task is enormous, all the more so because it has been delayed for so long. A study by TNS Sofres released in January (which claimed to be the first ethnic or racial census conducted in France), calculated that among the 1.9 millions black persons older than 18 years old living in France (3.8% of the population studied), 56% claim to have been victims of discrimination.

- Third, the cultural approach to diversity must not become a substitute for territorial social policy. The “banlieues” (or more exactly, the “zones urbaines sensibles”, not all located on the periphery of cities) can explode again at any time (actually, they partially have in some areas), as their structural problems have if anything worsened since the fall of 2005.

There is no denying that Rama Yade is a beautiful symbol and a powerful promise. She carries the hope that France will finally acknowledge cultural harmony as the defining issue of its future, leaving aside the national obsession with generational conflict inherited from May 1968. One reason to be optimistic? During her first public appearance on June 22, Yade made a good speech about cultural dialogue. In the audience, the AFP reported, a young girl turned to her friend and said: “Look, it’s Rachida Dati!”

--Eloi Laurent

Other blog articles about Rama Yade.


Unknown said...

I accidentally stumbled across your article and found it hugely informative. Thank you.


Helena Freeman

Anonymous said...

Interesting and well written biography. It will help a non-Frenchman like me to have links to photos of the various personalities involved, while reading the article.


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